The Great Texas Freeze Out

As Texans suffer through their fifth consecutive day in sub-freezing weather with little or no power, little or no heat, and now little or no water or water that needs to be boiled despite having no power or heat to do so, there are already a number of obvious lessons to be learned.

First, living in a state that believes in a functioning government and at least some regulation of capitalist forces is probably a good idea. Texas has already seen this kind of deep freeze and the resulting power problems before. Back in 2011, another polar vortex froze natural gas lines, shut down coal-fired plants, and froze wind turbines resulting in power outages similar to what we are seeing today, just not on such a statewide scale. After that incident, federal officials recommended that Texas winterize its electric grid but could not mandate those changes be made simply because Texas ran its own segregated grid. The reason Texas set up such an isolated grid was specifically to avoid federal regulation. In addition, under Governor G.W. Bush, Texas deregulated its energy market in such a way that prioritized cheap prices over reliability which worked well when energy was readily available. But the market also allowed generators to charge exorbitant rates when energy demand became unusually high, usually in the summer. One energy analyst described it as a “Wild West market design based only on short-run prices”. In addition, the board the state set up to manage the grid was dominated by industry, resulting in at least one third of the current board currently living outside of Texas.

Needless to say, the Republican-led state government ignored the federal recommendation to winterize its grid in 2011. And deregulation and low prices created little incentive for generators to protect their infrastructure from a repeat of 2011 or even invest in back-up power systems. The result is that today’s big freeze has once again frozen gas pipelines, shut down nuclear and coal plants, and frozen wind turbines. Nearly 40,000 megawatts of generation, more than one third of the state’s normal total, has been shut down. People are dying from hypothermia and 3.5 million are without power. Energy prices have risen from about $22 per megawatt hour to $9,000, meaning enormous bills for consumers in the coming billing cycle and forcing one provider to recommend that their customers switch providers in order to avoid outrageous billing.

The second lesson is that Republicans will never admit responsibility for anything. Texas Governor Greg Abbott went on Fox to bolster the lie that the reason for the state’s blackouts was its reliance on renewable energy that could not be produced in cold and snowy conditions. Said Abbott, “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America…Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis…It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary”. The only truth in that statement is that renewables only account for 10% of the Texas power grid. In fact, even with a few frozen wind turbines, renewables provided close to their expected amount of energy to the grid. The reality is that the fossil fuel plants — natural gas, coal, and nuclear — lost over 30,000 megawatts of generation, over 80% of the total lost generation, to due the freezing conditions. More importantly, if the state had mandated the grid be winterized, the wind turbines and the gas, coal, and nuclear generators would have all worked close to normally, just as they do in every other state and country that confronts real winter conditions.

Worse, the contempt that Republican leaders have show for their own citizens is truly astounding. Ted Cruz just jetted off to Mexico. One Texas mayor berated his constituents, writing, “No one owes you [or] your family anything…I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!..The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!”, adding that residents without power or running water should “step up and come up with a game plan” and “think outside of the box to survive and supply water to your family…Only the strong will survive and the weak will [perish]”. Former Governor Rick Perry and Trump’s Secretary of Energy added to the lies and insanity, saying, “If wind and solar is where we’re headed, the last 48 hours ought to give everybody a real pause and go wait a minute”, while at the same time dismissing any need for regulation by adding, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business”.

There is no downplaying the disaster unfolding in Texas right now. Untold numbers have already died from hypothermia and some have been without heat, water, or even food for days. The damage from burst pipes will probably run into the millions. But there is a degree of karmic justice for people like Ted Cruz and John Cornyn who refused to vote for federal relief for Hurricane Sandy and the California wildfires and said things like “California is now unable to perform even basic functions of civilization, like having reliable electricity.”

The fact of the matter is that the unique situation this week in Texas, like the wildfires in California and the flooding in the Midwest earlier this year, are a product of climate change. The declining strength of the jet stream which allows these polar vortices to drop so far south are clearly correlated with the warming polar climate. Similarly, climate change has made severe storms and hurricanes not only more powerful but often more slow moving, resulting in massive flooding, like we saw in the Midwest. It’s the same story in California, where climate change is responsible for more extreme heat events and more dry, warm, windy days that fuel the West’s wildfires.

Since we are not going to reverse the effects of climate change any time soon, what is required is massive investment in climate adaptation. That means winterizing the electric grid in areas of the country that haven’t required it before and upgrading capacity in areas that deal with summer heat waves. It means retrograding housing to deal with those new extremes. It means hardening coastlines and planning for a managed retreat from areas subject to the coming rise in sea levels. It means rebuilding sewer systems to handle the additional water these new extreme storms dump in a small area. Increasing droughts associated with climate change mean rethinking how we manage our water resources and how we farm. Our transportation infrastructure needs to be hardened to deal with flooding and abnormal winter conditions. All new infrastructure needs to be built with the future effects of climate change in mind. And by focusing on adaptation now we can avoid disasters like Texas and actually save ourselves even more money in the long run.

Lastly, there is one other link between the Texas and California blackouts and that is the aversion to maintenance in a for-profit economy. One energy expert explained the Texas fiasco succinctly, saying, “The ERCOT [Texas} grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union. It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances”. In California, PG&E knew its aging towers and lines were causing wildfires but diverted over $100 million designated for safety and maintenance to profits and bonuses over a 15 year period. Of course, the aversion to maintenance is not just limited to for-profit companies, primarily due to the austerity policies of the last four decades. Just a quick glance at our nation’s crumbling infrastructure can tell us that.

As a society, we worship the so-called innovators. Wall Street gives them billions to play with. But, as Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel write, “the central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice — perhaps somewhere around one per cent — of this workforce…What happens after innovation…is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations”. In the same way that the pandemic has illustrated that the vast majority of our actual essential workers are underpaid and underappreciated low wage workers, so too has the mundane work of maintenance been underappreciated and underinvested. For that, we are all paying the price.

Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on February 19, 2021.

Thoughtful discussions on politics and economics with some sidelights in photography and astronomy.

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